SNP accuse Theresa May of attempting to “bounce” Nicola Sturgeon into agreeing to freeze Brexit powers


Posted by Geoff Bishop.

Written by Michael Settle.

THERESA May has been accused by the Scottish Government of using a leaked letter to “bounce” it into agreeing to freeze certain Brexit powers it feels should go straight to Holyrood.

The row erupted after another inconclusive Joint Ministerial Committee when David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, denied there was any bad faith by the UK Government but admitted the legislative dispute between Whitehall and Edinburgh would “go to the wire”.

Just hours before the latest JMC meeting, a letter from the Cabinet Office to the Prime Minister was leaked.

It said ministers would now publish the list of 111 powers and responsibilities, which will transfer from Brussels following Brexit Day, and the 25, covering agriculture, fisheries and environmental protection, they want to be subject to UK-wide frameworks to protect the country’s internal market.

The letter made clear the list would be published with or without the consent of Nicola Sturgeon.

The leaked paper added: “It will allow us to rebut the ‘Westminster power-grab’ narrative deployed by the Scottish and Welsh Governments, which has been difficult to counter in the abstract.”

Emerging from the JMC, Michael Russell, the Scottish Government’s Brexit Minister, told reporters he was “very disappointed” by the leak, which he suggested had a deliberate purpose.

“We made our concern clear over an attempt to bounce us into[agreeing] a list of issues, which we had not seen. I have told the UK Government they should publish that list today and they should publish it as their list and their analysis.”

He went on: “It shows the extraordinary nature of the power-grab that’s underway. The lack of courtesy in failing to show it to the other two administrations really needs to be thought about as well and I made that point forcefully to David Lidington.”

Mr Russell said the Scottish Government had been “constructive” and put some ideas forward to make progress. Stressing how “consent is crucial,” he pointed out the SNP administration had sought to reassure Mrs May and her colleagues that “if consent is, as we feel it must be, sought for any changes, then that is consent that would not be unreasonably withheld”.

The Brexit Minister, who will brief MSPs next week on the latest JMC meeting, insisted the UK Government was “bound” to lose the argument over the power-grab, declaring: “If it looks like a power-grab, it acts like a power-grab, it is a power-grab.”

Mr Mundell, who could publish the list of Brexit powers as early as today, stressed: “We are committed to reaching agreement with both governments and the process for achieving that is ongoing. I know some people think it’s slow but that’s just the nature of these types of discussions; they always go to the wire.”

Asked if the leaked letter showed the UK Government was losing the argument over the power-grab issue, he declined to comment on the leak but insisted the UK Government had “demonstrated good faith throughout”.

Referring to next Wednesday’s JMC when Mrs May and Ms Sturgeon will face each other across the table, the Secretary of State said he “wouldn’t build up that meeting as the definitive point”.

He added: “Everyone is working towards getting an amendment that we can put down at the Report Stage in the House of Lords, which won’t be until after Easter.”

On Monday, it is expected the UK Government will table its amendment. Mr Lidington, the Cabinet Office Minister, described it as “reasonable”; peers are due to discuss the bill’s devolution clauses on March 21.

Whitehall sources stressed this was not the final word and they expected it to be changed further if it was going to satisfy Ms Sturgeon and Holyrood.

While the Committee Stage in the House of Lords ends later this month, changes can still be made at Report Stage before the legislation goes to Edinburgh and Cardiff for agreement. This could happen as late as May.

On the issue of “freezing” some powers transferring from Brussels before common frameworks can be agreed, the Welsh Government appeared to be more amenable than its Scottish counterpart.

Mark Drakeford, Cardiff’s Brexit Minister, said: “We need to agree which powers are going into the freezer, how long are they going to stay in the freezer and how are we going to get them out of the freezer.”

In other developments:

*European Council President Donald Tusk has poured cold water on Chancellor Philip Hammond’s hopes for a free trade agreement covering financial services, warning any post-Brexit deal would not offer the same access for services as for goods;

*the DUP’s Arlene Foster hit out at attempts to use the threat of the return to violence in Northern Ireland as a “bargaining chip” in the Brexit talks after warnings from former Prime Ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair;

*senior business figures warned firms would begin looking outside the UK for growth if the Government failed to secure a Brexit transition deal with the EU later this month and

*Downing Street rejected a demand by Brussels for more than £2.4 billion in what it said was underpaid customs duties on cheap Chinese fashion imports.

The Herald Scotland